In retaliation for their criticism of Israel, the right-wing group AIPAC plans to spend big to unseat the Squad in 2024. But in a Houston, pro-Palestine and democratic socialist candidate for Congress, Pervez Agwan, is taking the fight to an AIPAC-endorsed incumbent.
Pervez Agwan is running for the Eleventh Congressional District in Houston, Texas. (agwanforus.com)
In the 2022 midterms, the left flank in Congress continued to grow its ranks, with progressives Summer Lee in Pennsylvania and Greg Casar in Texas winning their elections to join “the Squad,” while incumbent Squad members all won reelection. Now, it looks like the progressive and socialist members of Congress will face steeper challenges in 2024: the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC) is planning to spend at least $100 million to primary Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Cori Bush, Jamaal Bowman, Summer Lee, and Ayanna Pressley. AIPAC is apparently targeting the group for its opposition to Israel’s brutal war on Gaza; all seven congressmembers have bucked Joe Biden and the rest of the Democratic Party to call for a cease-fire.
In East Texas’s newly drawn Seventh Congressional District, however, first-time candidate Pervez Agwan is taking the fight to AIPAC. The district, which includes part of southwestern Houston and surrounding areas, is currently represented by AIPAC-backed Democratic representative Lizzie Fletcher. Agwan, who has been endorsed by the Houston chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, is vocally pro-Palestine — he is calling for an immediate cease-fire and an end to US aid for Israel. Agwan’s platform also includes support for Medicare for All, free college for all, and a “Green New Houston.” Jacobin recently sat down with Agwan to discuss his campaign, his ambitious platform, and his views on Israel and Palestine.
Could you tell me a little about your background? How did you get into politics, and why did you decide to run for Congress now?
Politics was never the plan for me. My dad was a blue-collar worker. My mom looked after my brother and me at home. People with my name — Muhammad Pervez Siddique Agwan — we don’t run for office in this country.
My dad came to Manhattan in 1979 or 1980 with five bucks in his pocket. He did everything you could think of: hotel bellboy, restaurant worker, behind the counter at a convenience store. He and five or six of his siblings shared a small rent-controlled apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan back in the 1980s.
I grew up in one of the lowest-income neighborhoods in Houston, Gulfton — 40 percent of families and children live in poverty in Gulfton and [the nearby community of] Sharpstown. It’s one of the most uninsured zip codes in the state. So my upbringing was nothing special: no private schools, non-wealthy parents who barely spoke English — first-generation immigrants. My dad drove a forklift and worked at a gas station convenience store; I was the first in my family to go to college.[Running for office] was never in the plan. But a few years back, my father suddenly passed away. When the oil industry crashed in Houston, my father lost his job, but he was too proud to tell us that he lost his job and that he lost his health insurance. My brother was eighteen at the time; my mom doesn’t work. My dad was driving an Uber, and he didn’t tell us; he was too proud to tell us that he was struggling to cover health care.
My dad was a diabetic, and it’s $300 for a checkup. Houston doesn’t have a safety net. The state refuses to expand medical coverage — we refuse to expand Medicare and Medicaid. Within three months of losing his job, he started going through health issues, and he passed away very quickly. We tried to figure out why, and it was because he was a diabetic with heart disease. He just couldn’t get the care he needed.
Burying my father at a young age and having to take care of my brother . . . it woke me up to the idea that if this could happen to him, it could happen to anybody. And before he passed away, in the final hours, my father said to me, “Do something with your life that benefits others. Don’t chase the money, it’s never going to bring you happiness.”
That really stuck with me. I had recently graduated from [Massachusetts Institute of Technology]. I was studying and teaching up there. I went to work in renewable energy, because I wanted to make a difference. I’ve been building wind and solar projects for the last few years of my life, but it never really fulfilled me, seeing what I see [in Houston]. Because [the newly drawn district I’m running in] is not just the most diverse district in Texas, but also the most unequal. It has the highest-income neighborhood in the city, West University. But it also has one of the lowest-income neighborhoods, just five miles west.
I refuse to let this system continue. I blame health insurance companies funneling thousands of dollars to politicians for why we can’t expand medical coverage. Seventy-five percent of Americans want universal health care; 80 percent want paid family leave. But we can’t get anything done, because politicians are bought and paid for.
My personal experience of my family struggling with the cost of health care has woken me up — if there’s one thing this country needs, it’s universal health care.
So when they drew this district, I said, “Enough is enough. I’m going to throw my hat in the ring.” My personal experience of my family struggling with the cost of health care has woken me up — if there’s one thing this country needs, it’s universal health care. That’s why one of the things that I want to do is tackle the health insurance lobby head on.
The new district is the most diverse district in Texas. There are more ethnicities, nationalities, languages, races, and religions in this one district than any other area in the state. It has the largest Asian and Arab population in the state of Texas. It has more Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren voters than Joe Biden voters. There are two hundred thousand Asians and Arabs in the district. It encompasses Fort Bend County, which is the most diverse county in America.[My opponent, Rep.] Fletcher, is funded by the oil and gas companies. She’s funded by health insurance companies. As someone who has been at the forefront of trying to build renewable energy, trying to focus on the climate battle, as someone who’s really cared about labor laws . . . Fletcher is one of the most anti-labor candidates in the country.
She’s a union-buster. She’s a former corporate litigator, and the law firm she worked for sued the Service Employees International Union and janitorial workers. The firm attacked the rights of immigrant women workers to stand up for themselves, and they filled the jury with Donald Trump supporters and won the case. When people ask me why we’re running, it’s because it is unacceptable to me that we have someone who is anti-labor, pro-oil, and now pro–big lobbies in Congress trying to represent the district.
One element that stood out to me about platform was your call for a “Green New Houston.” What does that mean to you? What’s its connection to the Green New Deal championed by AOC and Bernie Sanders?
Most of the politicians in Houston are completely bankrolled by oil and gas special interests. We are a proud progressive campaign. We don’t take a dime from corporate PACs — no special interest money, no lobbyist dollars.
I’ve spent the last few years of my life in the clean energy space. I write policy; I’ve been teaching it. A Green New Houston represents a vision for a Houston that’s no longer in 1980. We’re still expanding highways; we barely have any bike lanes. I think every kid in the city deserves a park they can walk to from their home. I think every person in the city should be able to walk to the grocery store. Houston is notorious for pedestrian deaths. The Houston Chronicle did a series recently that showed Houston is one of the worst cities to drive in, on a variety of metrics like car accidents and per capita auto deaths. It’s a mess.
A Green New Houston is not just about renewable energy and clean energy. With public transportation, we can reduce pollution. In New York City, you can hop on the subway — we can’t do that in Houston. I live in the densest part of the city, Montrose. It’s also one of the most pro-Bernie neighborhoods in the city. People want to be able to walk, they want to be able to take a light-rail, they want to take the train, they want bike lanes, and we need to deliver on that.
A Green New Houston means bringing thousands of clean energy jobs to the city. Houston needs to be at the forefront of tech and green jobs. We need to use federal funding to build campuses — clean energy education centers, energy retraining centers.
Houston is known as an oil and gas city. But the Stone Age didn’t end for lack of stones, and the oil age will not end for lack of oil. We have to leave it in the ground. We can’t be known as the city of frackers and drillers; we have to be known as the city promoting growth and alternative energy industries.
A Green New Houston represents getting money out of politics. It’s a vision for a city with politics that’s not driven by oil and gas companies.
The problem is that the oil and gas industry controls our politicians. So a Green New Houston also represents getting money out of politics. It’s a vision for a city with politics that’s not driven by oil and gas companies, that’s not driven by Big Oil lobbyists. But Fletcher’s one of the top recipients of oil money in the entire Democratic Party.
We are big supporters of the [federal] Green New Deal. I actually don’t think it’s aggressive enough: we need national renewable portfolio standards. Wind and solar are the cheapest forms of energy available today. But we can’t [built at scale], because the monopoly utility lobby is too strong and because we have a broken Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The government is no longer working for people, and my opponent is being bankrolled by the special interests that are responsible for the failure of Congress.
In addition to a Green New Houston and Medicare for All, you also calling for free college for all and forgiveness of federal student loan debt. Your website talks about wanting to eradicate inequality and corporate greed.
These are pretty massive changes. What do you think it’s going to take to achieve these, given the corporate power we’ve been talking about?
I think the Democratic Party and Republican Party are afraid of candidates that run grassroots campaigns on these platforms because they see us winning and we’re winning popular sentiment. It’s not just our campaign. Look at polling around the country: 70 to 80 percent of Americans want an immediate renewable energy buildout. Almost 80 percent want paid family leave. Seventy-odd percent want universal health care. Seventy-something percent believe Congress no longer works for the people.
All these things are what people in this country want. But special interests have completely hijacked everything in government. Let’s take AIPAC, for example. AIPAC is coming after women of color who stand for universal health care, who stand for getting money out of politics, who want to overturn the Citizens United decision.
Most Americans see the issue. But most candidates are too scared to lose. Most people in office don’t have the courage to stand up, because they don’t want $1–2 million thrown against them. This campaign refuses to be silenced. We’re going to directly confront every PAC, every special interest that comes our way, because this country will not change unless our candidates and our elected officials are honest about what’s actually happening: the government has been purchased by legalized bribery.
We have the resources to win this district because it’s aligned with us on values. Demographically, it’s favorable. I think Lizzie Fletcher and the Democratic Party are afraid of us. They see the courage that campaigns like ours are showing, and they realize that this could lead to a wave. That’s why AIPAC is doubling down against Jamaal Bowman and Summer Lee. It’s losing the PR battle: nearly 70 percent of Democrats support a cease-fire [in Israel and Palestine], and 50 to 60 percent of Republicans, but 98 percent of Congress voted to send more money to Israel.
A lot of people will say, “Don’t attack AIPAC; don’t attack the oil and gas lobby.” No — we’re going to attack them head on, because they’re responsible for the destruction of democracy.
You mentioned AIPAC and calls for a cease-fire. Can you talk about your position there? What do you think of the Biden administration and the Democratic Party’s policy toward Israel right now?
We need an immediate cease-fire. Why the hell is the Biden administration giving the [Benjamin] Netanyahu regime a green light to commit genocide in the Gaza Strip? Why are innocent Palestinians who have nothing to do with [the October 7 attacks] being slaughtered?
I think it’s time for us to reckon with the fact that America’s current military alliance with Israel is a direct threat to our national security interest. Israel is an apartheid state — we should talk about that. When we arm and prop up an apartheid state, we destroy our credibility. We’re breeding animosity between the United States and people in the Middle East.
I’m the only candidate in this race calling for a cease-fire because my opponent is bankrolled by AIPAC. Democrats in my district are watching this very closely while my opponent stays silent in the face of these atrocities. When asked about Gaza, Congresswoman Fletcher’s AIPAC-backed colleague Lindsey Graham said that Israel should “level the place,” and then he called on the United States to launch a war with Iran. My opponent stayed silent and did not call out this destructive rhetoric.
I think it’s time we stop having a defense budget greater than the next nine countries combined and focus on improving the lives of average Americans here, especially in the neighborhoods I’m trying to represent.
She has [also called for putting] more pressure on Iran. We need less war in this country. We have the most bloated defense budget in the world — we have an over $1 trillion defense budget. I think it’s time we stop having a defense budget greater than the next nine countries combined and focus on improving the lives of average Americans here, especially in the neighborhoods I’m trying to represent.[I’m running to] represent what is now the largest Arab community of any district in Texas and the largest Muslim American community of any district in Texas. But also, it’s one of the most progressive seats in Houston. We don’t have to bend to special interests; we can be honest. Because this country will not change unless our politicians are honest. And it costs AIPAC and all these lobbies a lot more money to spread their lies than it does for us to go door to door and spread the truth.
Your campaign has been endorsed by the Houston chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. Do you identify as a democratic socialist? What’s your relationship to DSA and the young socialist movement in the United States?
We are proudly endorsed by Houston DSA. I am a proud democratic socialist, because when people ask me what I stand for, I stand for universal health care. If that makes me a democratic socialist, I’m proud of that. If people ask me what I stand for, I stand for building green energy, and [I believe] the government should lead that charge. If that makes me a democratic socialist, then so be it.
I stand for eradicating wealth inequality. I believe that in the richest country on Earth, no one should go bankrupt when they get sick. In the richest country on Earth, no one should be sleeping on the streets. In the richest country on Earth, we shouldn’t have insulin cost almost ten times as much as it does in other countries. If all of that makes me democratic socialist, then I’m proud to be a democratic socialist.
I think the Biden administration should not only be calling for an immediate cease-fire — we need to be sanctioning the Netanyahu regime.
Houston DSA are my friends; I’m also a member of the DSA. We need to start realizing that unless we start building a government that works for everybody and not for lobbyists, we will never have an egalitarian society that respects everybody, that returns power to working people. Houston DSA and DSA nationally are really working to change this broken two-party political system.
I don’t like labels; people are scared of labels. But Bernie Sanders is a democratic socialist. And Bernie has a wide appeal, because he goes up there and he talks about issues.
The media wants to label people and scare the average voter. It’s corporate media; a lot of these media firms are publicly traded. There’s a profit incentive to push certain narratives — it’s not objective. The way we can combat that is by getting more issue-oriented politicians into office who are also proud of standing by their label. I’m proud to stand by the fact that I am a democratic socialist endorsed by DSA.Original post